The Pearson Brothers: A Jacksonville Civil Rights Story
In honor of the contributions and sacrifices that the Pearson family has made in the effort to make Jacksonville a more inclusive and equitable environment for all, the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission unanimously approved a recommendation to pursue the designation of the 106-year-old Pearson residence as a local historic landmark. Prepared by the Jacksonville Planning and Development Department Historic Preservation Office staff, here is a narrative detailing the local civil rights contributions of Lloyd Nash Pearson, Jr. and Rutledge Henry Pearson.
The violent attacks of the young demonstrators on August 27, 1960 shocked the white community which in turn galvanized action, particularly by the business community, to address race relations. Concerned about continued national exposure to Jacksonville’s negative racial climate and its impact on the city’s business appeal, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and other community and religious leaders, circumvented the lack of action by Mayor Haydon Burns to create a community advisory committee to address this explosive situation. The committee met with members of NAACP, along with representatives from black and white ministerial alliances, at Snyder Memorial Methodist Church to discuss the many issues facing the black community. Their efforts eventually lead to some change including the integration of several downtown lunch counters and restaurants and the hiring of two black public librarians. However, the meeting created the momentum needed to address other problems that have plagued the black community for decades such as segregated and unequal educational opportunities, lack of neighborhood infrastructure, as well as the need for economic development and jobs.
Snyder Memorial Methodist Church in Downtown Jacksonville. Image courtesy of Ennis Davis, AICP
With little action on the implementation of the community advisory committee recommendations by downtown businesses resulted in renewed demonstrations including a boycott starting March 1, 1963 of downtown stores. The boycott was called off when NAACP officials including Earl Johnson, Leander Shaw, Eric Simpson and W.W. Schell met with members of the Chamber of Chamber to develop an agreement to find ways of addressing black issues without a disruption of businesses. However, pressure for change continued to grow, leading the NAACP under Pearson in February of 1964 to initiate a five week direct action campaign against businesses and organizations that continued to practice discrimination.
To avoid a potentially violent situation as in 1960, Pearson approached the Jacksonville Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance who agreed to provide active support of the boycott. Since members couldn’t be sued, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance under Reverend Charles Dailey took over as the leaders of the boycott with Pearson remaining the defacto leader. Dailey described the relationship with Pearson, “as the pied piper who played the music while the ministers marched behind wherever he led”. Nevertheless, the protest always were organized and started at churches with active participation by ministers, with 27 of their number being jailed during this period.
Demonstrators in front of the new Robert Meyer Hotel.
Continued frustration with the speed of desegregation by downtown businesses, demonstrators on February 17, 1964 attempted to have a meal at the restaurant located in the new Robert Meyer Hotel immediately behind the Woolworth’s and J.C. Penney stores. After not being served, demonstrations broke out in different parts of downtown in the middle of the rush hour. Concerned about impact of the demonstrations on his gubernatorial race, Mayor Burns responded with the swearing in of 496 firefighters as special police officers that joined the 508 member force in arresting many of the demonstrators which included four ministers. In response, the Florida Chapter of NAACP requested the Justice Department and the Civil Rights Commission to investigate the legality of deputizing firefighters and interfering with peaceful protest. Mayor Burns responded that his actions were not to end peaceful protest but to enforce municipal assemblage laws. Going on local television stations to call for calm, Mayor Burns reiterated his continued support for segregation but stated that the city government had responded adequately to these protest citing opening public facilities to all races, no more civil service discrimination and to provide equal services to all neighborhoods.
A group of demonstrators in 1964. Images from the Rodney Lawrence Hurst, Sr. Papers
On March 23, 1964, riots broke out along Florida Avenue in Oakland when four men were charged with assaulting a white delivery man. In response to the arrest, most white owned businesses and some owned by blacks were attacked and vandalized. Without the authority of Rutledge Pearson and the local NAACP branch, some members of the Youth Council assembled in Hemming Park on March 23, 1964, but were forced by the police to disperse with most re-grouping at the new Stanton High School which was later closed due to a bomb threat. Again, sporadic outbreaks of violence and vandalism continued into the evening resulting in the arrest of 200 demonstrators. One particularly violent incident was the murder of Mrs. Johnnie Mae Chappell, a black mother of ten, shot while walking along Kings Road looking for her wallet.
Also on March 23, the police officers raided the office of the local NAACP chapter on North Broad Street. Arrested were 23 teenagers and adults charged with throwing fire bombs at passing cars from the second story window. During times of such racial violence, Pearson received threatening phone calls and hate mail forcing him to send his children to stay with his brother Lloyd Pearson, Jr. Mayor Burns blamed operatives of his opponents in the governor’s race as inflaming predominately black youths stating that Jacksonville had good race relations before the campaigns started. Reverend Martin Luther King offered the services of the SCLC as mediators but declined by local black leaders. King also complimented Pearson on his use of non-violent techniques even when faced with violent responses.
The Masonic Temple at 410 Broad Street was envisioned to serve as a meeting center for the black community. In 1926, the Negro Blue Book described it as one of the finest buildings owned by African-Americans in the world. The offices of the local NAACP chapter was located in this building during the 1960s. Image courtesy of Ennis Davis, AICP.
Speaking to various groups, Pearson called for the violence and destruction to end since downtown merchants seemed ready to negotiate. The violence and destructions soon ended. Although blaming the recent incidents on the local NAACP Chapter, Mayor Burns agreed to have the Committee Relations Committee (CRC) to study black concerns and issues and come up with recommendations to improve race relations. The CRC was composed of four prominent white businessmen that included Robert Millus, manager of May-Cohens Department Store, Robert Reagin, vice president of the Florida Publishing Company (Florida Times Union and the Jacksonville Journal), Claude Yates, vice president of Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company and Charles W. Campbell, senior vice president of the South Central Office of the Prudential Life Insurance Company. They were joined by three highly respected black leaders that included local physician Dr. W.W. Schell, who also was the president of the Jacksonville Urban League, I.H. Burney II, vice president of the Afro American Life Insurance Company, and prominent attorney, Earl Johnson who was a NAACP representative.
Chaired by Robert Millus, the committee had numerous individuals come and speak on various issues and concerns. However, the black representatives soon resigned in protest over the proposed agenda and wanted to focus more on economic and social issues with white members concerned only with social issues. Although the CRC was split in their charge, the new mayor, Louis Ritter took a more conciliatory position towards race relations and helped develop an acceptable agenda. In a March 26, 1964, the editors of the Florida Times Union made a fortuitous statement about Pearson stating, “He can wheel and deal with ever segment. He holds this Negro town together. If he is killed, let’s hope it’ll be in an auto accident”
These demonstrations in the 1960s and Rutledge’s election as president greatly revitalized the Jacksonville Branch of NAACP growing from less than 200 members to 2,000 members by 1964. During his administration, lawsuits also began to be filed by attorneys Earl Johnson and Leander Shaw, who later became Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. These legal actions were taken under the guidance of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Mass meetings were held in various black churches to continue the fight against racial inequalities in Jacksonville with more focus on the poor state of black segregated schools. Some of the speakers at these night meeting included such nationally prominent civil rights leaders as Thurgood Marshall, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Ruby Hurley and Medgar Evers, Field Secretary of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP. Medgar Evers spoke at the Jacksonville Branch’s Freedom Fund Banquet in 1963 and was assassinated at his Mississippi home later in the year.
Assassinated in 1963 shortly after a trip to Jacksonville, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was a classmate and close friend of Rutledge Pearson. Image courtesy of Biography.com.
According to Lloyd N. Pearson, Jr., black churches played an important role in the success of these civil rights activities by functioning as a 1960s era internet. In addition to hosting public meetings as exemplified by the Laura Street Presbyterian Church and St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church, ministers also used the pulpit to communicate with their members about upcoming events. In some cases, special offerings were collected in the church to help fund these initiatives, as well as allowing for the distribution of literature and pamphlets that advertise these events and encouraged participation. Some of the churches and ministers that participated according to Lloyd N. Pearson, Jr. were Reverend J.S. Johnson (St. Stephens M.E. Church), Reverend Young (Mount Calvary Baptist Church), Reverend J. C. Sams (Second Missionary Baptist Church), Reverend Robert Wilson (Bethel Baptist Institutional Church), and Reverend Barnes (Springfield Baptist Church). Most of the ministers were also active in the local NAACP. Youth and ministers usually were more active in protest due to being shielded economically from reprisals.
Following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown vs, the Board of Education of Topeka Kansas that overturned the “separate but equal” principle, local NAACP attorney, Earl Johnson, working with Sadie Braxton, president of the Jacksonville NAACP and mortician Wendell Holmes, chair of the NAACP’s Education Committee to desegregate local schools, filed a suit in 1960 on behalf of seven black parents and fourteen children, charging the Duval County School Board of operating a system of racially segregated schools. Holmes went on to become the first African-American to be elected to a school board in Florida, and later served as Chair of the Duval County School Board.
In 1962, Federal Judge Bryan Simpson ruled that the Duval County School Board must develop a plan for ending total segregation of local public schools. The School Board plan approved by Judge Simpson allowed for the integration of first and second grades in 1963 with a different grade level added each year until in full compliance with the court order. Because of residential segregation, only thirteen black students enrolled in five white schools in September of 1963. The schools included Fishweir, Hyde Grove, Oak Hill, Lackawanna and Venetia Elementary Schools.
The former Lackawanna Elementary School. Image courtesy of Ennis Davis, AICP.
First grader, Donal Godfey, started attending the white Lackawanna Elementary School near his home. He and his mother, Iona Godrey King were heckled and threaten by white demonstrators while walking to school which was also being picketed each day by a group of white women. The threats got so severe that Donal was escorted to school by police detectives. In February of 1964, a bomb ripped through the Godfrey home located near the intersection of Gilmore Street and Owen Avenue. The explosion did not cause any injuries since it was placed under the house opposite the side containing the bedrooms. Two months later, William Rosecrans, a member of the KKK in Indiana, along with five local Klan members, was charged with placing the bomb. Rosecrans was sentenced to seven years, however, one of the five local Klan members was acquitted and the other four released due to a mistrial. Donal transferred to a black school, but returned to Lackawanna for the 5th grade. Frustrated with the School Board’s slow pace in following the desegregation order, the Citizens Committee for Better Education under Wendell Holmes requested all black students to not attend school during a three day period starting on December 7, 1964.
On the first day 17,000 black students did not attend school followed by 10,000 on the second day and 7,000 on the third. Within a three day period of December 7, 8 & 9, the absent of 34,000 students ($3.33 per student) caused the School Board a loss of $65,654 in state funds. With potential loss of his teaching job on the line, Pearson remained in his classroom during the three days of the boycott but continued to work behind the scene. The school board filed an unsuccessful lawsuit seeking a charge of blackmail against Wendell Holmes, Reverend Charles Dailey, R.L. Jones and Pearson, the School Board of School Trustees voted to bring insubordination charges against Pearson. In litigating against the lawsuit, NAACP attorneys, Earl Johnson and John Franklin countered that the boycott represented an exercise of free speech.
The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance sent a letter to School Superintendent Ish Brant, Board Chairman, Ned P. Searcy and trustee board member Dr. Hugh Wilcox protesting their treatment of Pearson. In the letter, the Alliance pointed out that the continued threats of making charges against Pearson, when none were established, was harassment challenging his integrity and reputation based on innuendos. Although no charges were officially made, Pearson was the only teacher out of 3,700 that was recommended by the Trustees to not be hired for the 1965 – 66 school year.
The Citizens Committee for Better Education also met with several white groups to address others educational issues. The biggest issue was the inadequate financial support for local schools due to insufficient tax base that developed from strong and excessive political influence on government officials. Unresponsive elected officials, insufficient funding, and the severe conditions of Duval County schools caused many groups to support dis-accreditation of the fourteen secondary schools that occurred on December 3, 1964. The condition of black schools was far worse when compared with white schools. Black students suffered from segregated overcrowded classes forced in antiquated and inadequate facilities, as well as poor teacher morale due to the presence of political influence in the appointment of principals and the reportedly selling of teacher jobs.